Design & SimulationOctober 27, 2021

AURORA manifests a new approach to sustainable design

Are standard design practices contributing to the take-make-waste economy in which valuable resources end up in landfills rather than being reused? A new installation at the Design Museum in London demonstrates how a change in thinking can contribute to more reuse, recycling and regeneration.
Avatar Bernadette Hearne

With the COP26 climate conference opening next week in Glasgow, people everywhere are asking themselves what they can do to reduce their impact on the planet. Curators at the Design Museum are asking this question of designers, too, in a new exhibition “Waste Age: What can design do?” on display through February 22.

“We must face the problem of waste,” the exhibit’s curator, Gemma Curtin, says in her introduction to the exhibition on the Design Museum’s website. “Instead of thinking of objects as things that have an end life, they can have many lives.”

That premise is exactly what AURORA, a free-to-the-public installation in the museum’s atrium through November 14, aims to demonstrate. Though it looks like an artistic swirl of crystal and gold at first glance, AURORA actually is a study in how decisions that designers rarely control can profoundly change the environmental impacts of their creations – and how what is created for one purpose, if designed with reuse in mind – can have many lives.

In the photos that follow, take a virtual tour of AURORA to discover its hidden design lessons.

When renowned London-based architect Arthur Mamou-Mani and Anne Asensio, head of the Design Studio at Dassault Systèmes, began thinking about the experience they would create as part of the studio’s annual Design in the Age of Experience program, they wanted the result to be sustainable – reusable, recyclable, regenerative. “We couldn’t start with the ‘thing’ we were going to create,” Asensio said. “We had to start with the material we would use.” (Image © Design Studio/Mathieu Leborgne)
Using Life Cycle Assessment tools, which measure the environmental impacts of different materials and processes, the team chose PLA, a bioplastic made from plant starches. Although similar in strength to petroleum-based plastic, PLA requires far less energy to produce, releases less CO2, and can be composted industrially. Parts made from PLA also can be crushed, re-melted and remade several times. (Image courtesy of Mamou-Mani Architects)
With the material choice made, Mamou-Mani sketched the beginning of an idea for what AURORA might look like. (Image courtesy of Mamou-Mani Architects)
To ensure that it considered all of the design, scientific, architectural and safety factors of their artwork, the team required input from dozens of specialists worldwide. The team collaborated on a cloud-based innovation platform, where they developed and refined the design, assembly, disassembly and potential to reuse the modules that make up AURORA. The platform integrates input from every expert and, as concepts develop, displays ideas visually – a language all can understand – as 3D models. (Image courtesy of the Design Studio)
The platform tracks the interrelationships among all disciplines and decisions. With a few clicks, the team could change finishes, colors, module arrangements and more until arriving at the desired look. Any changes that did not work could be undone with a click. This ability eliminated the need to make, build, assemble and test ideas physically, saving time, electric power, assembly space and materials. (Image courtesy of Design Studio)
Air movements from doors and air conditioning systems in the museum could move AURORA’s hanging modules, so the team used the platform to simulate the effects of air flows on the installation’s stability – to avoid clashes and ensure the safety of museum visitors below. (Image courtesy of the Design Studio)
But how would AURORA look once installed? The design team used the platform’s photorealistic imagery and material-rendering capabilities to “look” at the installation from different angles and determine if the plan would create the affects they wanted. (Image courtesy of the Design Studio)
The team also modeled the atrium and mezzanine of the Design Museum so they could fully understand how the installation would look in the space in daylight, at night and with different lighting effects. Compare the photorealistic 3D model in this image . . . . (Image courtesy of the Design Studio)
. . . with a photo taken during the opening night gala, under blue mood lighting. Every element is identical. (Image courtesy of the Design Studio)
Mamou-Mani and Asensio used the gala to explain the importance of Upstream Thinking, in which they considered material, reuse and recycling before creating the artwork. “It is very important that designers start thinking beyond the timeframe of their projects,” Mamou-Mani said. “We need to start thinking of where the material came from, where it is going, how it can be reconfigured. AURORA demonstrates that this is possible today – if only we adjust our thinking.” (Image courtesy of the Design Studio)
The exhibit explains three parallel processes to visitors on the mezzanine walls: Design for Life, Material for Life and Fabrication for Life. “Design, science and industry must converge and collaborate to conceptualize a new, unified practice in support of a limited planet,” Asensio said. “The platform guides that practice, empowering all people to contribute to advancing society’s collective progress toward a fully regenerative future.” (Image courtesy of the Design Studio)
Employees at Mamou-Mani Architects have already reused modules created for AURORA as plant trellises and table bases. How would you repurpose a module and give it new life? (Image © Felix Speller)

Want to go? Purchase tickets. (Note: Museum members can attend free of charge.)

To learn more about the collaboration that created AURORA, including an interactive experience of the installation inside the Design Museum, visit, click “launch the experience” and then click the ? to enter the exhibit via your smartphone’s camera.

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